Hero, scoundrel, or both?
February 16, 2009 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Among the body of conspirators in the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler and seize the German government, few were as ambivalent as Count Wolf Heinrich von Helldorf, head of the Berlin police. Although sympathetically (if briefly) portrayed in a recent film about the plot, von Helldorf was a definitely more enigmatic figure.

A former member of the Freikorps and participant in the Kapp-Putsch to overthrow the nascent Weimar Republic. Von Helldorf was also an early-hour Nazi who had been arrested in 1931 for his part in anti-Semitic riots. He was acquitted after a spirited defence by Roland Freisler, a Nazi lawyer who would go on to become the infamous president of the "Volksgerichtshof" kangaroo court which sentenced dissidents to the regime, like the July 20th plotters, including von Helldorf himself.

Von Helldorf also had a reputation for being a spendthrift and compulsive gambler. As such, he once had a considerable debt with none other than Erik Jan Hanussen, a notorious conman, medium and grand master of ceremonies of the decadent Berlin of the Roaring Twenties. Hanussen, despite being in fact Jewish, cultivated access to the Nazi top. He was nevertheless murdered shortly after accurately "predicting" the Reichstag fire, with von Helldorf a prime suspect both for the leak and the subsequent murder.

As police chief first of Potsdam and then of Berlin, von Helldorf eagerly participated in the harassment of Jewish citizens. Still as greedy, he also took advantage of their plight to collect bribes in exchange of passports to leave Germany. However, some sources also suggest that he raged against his subordinates' passivity towards the rioters during the Kristallnacht.

From 1938, apparently spooked by the Nazis' warmongering, he seems to have started approaching conservative dissident circles, a gradual movement which culminated in his part in the July 20th plot. Whether his involvement was due to a sudden case of principles, or rather to his well-proven opportunism, he was to pay dearly for it: of all the conspirators, none attracted as much hatred from Hitler and Himmler as the "traitor" von Helldorf, whose gambling debts they had personally taken care of in the past. For possibly the only decent act in his life, von Helldorf was tortured, publicly humiliated and sentenced to death by hanging with a piano wire. Hitler personally ordered that von Helldorf be executed the last of four, so that he would have to watch the long agony of the others.
posted by Skeptic (12 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf? Holy shit, that's a bad-ass name.
posted by box at 12:41 PM on February 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Before checking out your links, will take chance to re-post this top recouping of the Valkyrie trailer. "More swastikas than the History Channel!"
posted by Abiezer at 1:02 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

You know who else tortured?
posted by kuujjuarapik at 1:07 PM on February 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the german wikipedia is another quote by Goebbels about his "guidelines for jew-affairs" with 76 pedantic administration harassments, that they were rigorous and comprehensive, and that way they would be able to drive the jews out of berlin in forseeable time.

Like the other conspirators of the 20th July a convinced nazi, participant in a criminal war of aggression until they suddenly discovered their conscience after d-day.
posted by kolophon at 1:21 PM on February 16, 2009

I was totally about to post about Hanussen. Strange convergence.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:50 PM on February 16, 2009

The Staffenburg movie is bad in not a single good way, and good only fleetingly and against it's own strenuous efforts.

This movie features a Hanussen that straddles these ambiguities really nicely.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:12 PM on February 16, 2009

Bizarre post-Lawrence of Arabia movie starring Omar Sharif and Peter O'Toole with sanitized Helldorf role and a GĂ©rard Buhr cameo as Von Stauffenberg.
posted by 3.2.3 at 4:52 PM on February 16, 2009

I came here to say that, box. It's so impossibly cool it's almost seems like parody.

It's so cool it makes fellow conspirators cool names appear uncool. Claus von Stauffenberg, Friedrich Fromm, Mertz von Quirnheim, and Eric Fell-Gerbil.

My favourite cool German has always been Baron von Cramm. Geddit? Butt cram. Heh heh.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 5:01 PM on February 16, 2009

Like the other conspirators of the 20th July a convinced nazi, participant in a criminal war of aggression until they suddenly discovered their conscience after d-day.

That's going it a bit. There were those whose Anti-Nazi sentiment and action predated the war. I offer one counter example, though he is far from the only one.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:17 AM on February 17, 2009

If Eric Fell-Gerbil's daughter and Baron von Cramm's son had a child would the child's last name be Cramm-Gerbil?
posted by Pollomacho at 6:26 AM on February 17, 2009

Gerbil-Cramm, ladies first you know.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:42 AM on February 17, 2009

Look upon his name, ye goths, and despair!
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:21 PM on February 17, 2009

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